Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Tony Fruscella 1927-1969

I was a kid; I worked in my brother's bookstore--I swept the place out every night after school in the winter and I did odd jobs like printing people's names on Christmas cards at Xmas time, simple stuff like that. Attached to the bookstore was my brother's magazine stand and I started working in there then on weekends as the day cashier from 9 am until the old Colonel came on at 6:30 pm--I hated the old octogenarian's codger ass because every night when he came on he double-checked my registry check-out and son of a bitch if he usually didn't catch me a couple of cents off--one time a big deal over a dollar off--but anyway, besides the old Colonel, the job was cool and easy and kept me out of trouble on Saturdays and Sundays--plus it brought me in some big bucks for a teenage boy, enough that on payday, every Friday afternoon, I'd take my check to the bank, cash it, and then head straight to the record shop, which was right next door to my hometown's magnificent movie palace in a little nook-like store, maybe 10-feet wide but deep, man, like 30-feet deep, and all one thirty-foot wall was lined with booths containing turntables and speakers and on the other wall was the counter and behind the counter stored in slots were the hundreds and hundreds of records, 78s, 45s, EPs, and those new fabulous LPs--"Why, they can get a whole Broadway show on just one of those LPs."

So I would run in this record shop and the lady that owned it knew my family--most of the city did--and she especially liked me and I told her I was interested in jazz and one day she let me go through these stacks and stacks of 78 rpm jazz records, and I took out all the ones I wanted and she let me have them for 50 cents a piece, like the New Jazz label, a division of Prestige Records, and a side called "The Fox Hunt" and played by the J.J. Johnson Bop Seven, that included Sonny Rollins--so that's how I got to get a little privileged at this record shop, to the point that any jazz records or albums she got in, I got first crack at them.

One day I ran in the record shop hoping the lady had gotten the new Modern Jazz Quartet LP I had ordered. She said she hadn't gotten that album in yet but that she did get a big shipment from Atlantic Records and I was welcome to be the first one to go through those albums. I was in wonderland--I think I was the Mad Hatter as I tore through (I'm late, I'm late) those wonderful fresh new albums and it was all jazz--the first one I came across was an album featuring Ray Charles and Milt Jackson recording together.

Then I came across an album by somebody I had never heard of...the album was simply called "Tony Fruscella." That was it--we call those "self-titles"--and there was something inviting about the cover--just Tony in a checkered cotton shirt, looking down, holding his trumpet--it reminded me of a Miles Davis Prestige album cover--and I suppose now that's what it was copying. I read the back liner notes. Tony was born in Orangeburg, New York. He was early on orphaned and spent his youth in an orphanage. The notes said Tony now lived in Manhattan without a telephone...why, nobody even knew Tony's address, because he didn't have one; he was more or less a homeless guy. But this was the groovin' high era of be-bop and on Tony's album was one of the unsung early be-boppers, Allen Eager, a tenor saxist, a white guy, put down a little bit by the black be-boppers. Bill Triglia was Tony's pianist. I knew Bill Triglia from reading about Lester Young--Triglia played piano with Lester in the early fifties when Lester started his own touring group and through Triglia Lester used Tony Fruscella several times and really dug the cat and took him kinda under his wing. Tony was an alcoholic--Lester was, too--but Tony went further into it and became a heroin addict. Tony played a paper-sack trumpet, as we used to call pawn shop instruments--you know, you never could afford a case for them so you carried them in paper bags. A beat-up old trumpet he seemed to cherish as an instrument from his own mold--playing it with those short stabbing blue-velvet-blues lines--be-bop trumpet--a la Miles and not Dizzy, though I've always contented Miles was just a cool Dizzy--played the same licks as Dizzy with a little more modest form of virtuosics. Tony's compared, too, to Chet Baker--except Chet happened on the West Coast and became a part of "cool" jazz--which was West Coast jazz, developed mostly by white jazzmen like Gerry Mulligan, Shorty Rogers, Shelley Manne, Red Mitchell, Whitey Mitchell, Bob Cooper, Bud Shank, Bill Holman, guys like that--all influenced heavily by Miles's Birth of the Cool album that was originally a Gerry Mulligan tentet recording date. Gerry left pianos out of his early West Coast groups, especially the two most famous of his LPs with his quartet, which included Chet Baker, who was also an alcoholic/heroin addict--Chet died mysteriously when he fell backwards out a hotel window and fell to his death--was he pushed?

So, I took the Tony Fruscella album into a booth and started digging it. It was great. Loose; cool; heavy beat; all be-bop. And then I got to "The Metropolitan Blues," and I read that Tony was a close friend of trumpeter Don Joseph who in turn was a friend of trumpeter Phil Sunkel who wrote "The Metropolitan Blues." That convinced me to buy the album--and I did, plopped down a hard-earned $3.50 for this long-playing Atlantic album--that ran at 33 1/3 rpms.

I listened to this album over and over and over and I went around my hometown singing Tony's praises, though, I guarantee you this, I was the only one in my hometown who knew who the hell Tony Fruscella was--why, I was probably the only human being for hundreds of miles around who'd ever heard of Tony Fruscella, much less owned his first album.

Tony today is a jazz legend. Young musicians go for Tony's story--and it is sad. Tony started falling apart in the sixties, though he kept gigging and since his death in 1969--he was 42--several hours of never released tapes have been released, one with Tony jamming with Charles Parker, Jr., in a hotel room--which was probably Lester Young's Woodside Hotel room--since Bird and Lester knew each other, first meeting out in California--Lester and his brother Lee had the Young Brothers Band in those days and they opened at Billy Berg's Hollywood nightclub and was there when Bird and Diz came to LA and introduced the West Coast to the cream of be-bop. Lester then went on to start the jam sessions at Billy Berg's that later Norman Granz took over and that later developed into Jazz at the Philharmonic.

To this day Tony's version of "The Metropolitan Blues" is still in my repertoire as a pianist, and just the other day I recorded what may be my fifth recording of "The Metropolitan Blues"--still turning me on after 50 some-odd years of playing it. Everytime I play it I think of Tony.

Here's a tribute to Tony that was published in an Austin, Texas, newspaper a while back. I disagree with the dude that art is not culture--but otherwise, it's a cool piece about how a dude got hooked on Tony Fruscella and how Tony encouraged him to play the trumpet...check it out.

I asked for and received a trumpet -- a beat-up used trumpet, but it had a sweet tone. Joined the school band for instruction. Bought or stole every Louis Armstrong record I could find. And I looked for other trumpet players. I'd vaguely heard of Miles Davis, there he was playing trumpet on a new album called Kind of Blue, I haunted the store till I could filch the record. To my enormous surprise, this jazz was utterly different from Armstrong's, just as direct but terribly more complex. (And I will never forget first hearing John Coltrane on the first cut of that album. Even on my little mono record player, it felt like he was playing his notes up and down my spine.) Fifteen-year-old boys need, seek, and require, profound shocks to their systems -- shocks that lift them out of their world, out of their minds, and permeate them with qualities that their preconceptions can't grasp but that their souls cleave to. Jazz, for me, was and is a music of such shocks -- a music, a reality, in which even the discords were harmonies.

And there in the record stacks was a gray album showing a young man in a checked flannel shirt, with his head bent and his eyes closed, who cupped the bell of his trumpet in his clasped hands, allowing the horn to rest on his shoulder. He was listening hard. To what, I had no idea. The album title said merely: Tony Fruscella.

He was Sicilian, like me. The liner notes said he'd grown up in an orphanage, like where my brothers and sister were. "Tony subsists without a telephone, and as nearly as can be determined, without an address." Essentially homeless, like me. And he played "a battered hock-shop special," like me. I didn't know then that "Fru," as he was called, was a junkie; nor that this was the only record he'd release in his short life (he would die in 1969, at the age of 42). I knew he wasn't great the way Miles and Louis and Trane were great -- even I could hear that right off. His gift was smaller in dimensions, but no less intimate, no less complex for being smaller. He had a quiet, breathy tone -- he made his horn whisper. His music was lyrical, modest, sweet, bitter -- he sounded lost and he wasn't afraid, in his sound, to admit that. Not lost musically: While not great he was very good and knew his horn. But just ... lost. You heard that, in his whispery, almost shy sound. On the first cut, "I'll Be Seeing You," he made an edgy but quiet search into every implication of the melody, and ended near where he'd begun, the statement of a heart that could not find a way out of itself.

Fru taught me the value of the "minor" artist. He taught me, he still teaches me, that you didn't have to be great or famous to make a mark. Sincerity, honesty, integrity, and an open heart -- that could be enough, in art, to reach out and make a difference to someone. You could be a doomed guy from an orphanage, unable to conquer your demons, and still have a few moments in art that would not be easily erased and that would reach into someone else's needy soul.

Later, at the age of 18, I had a job in the mailroom in Riker's Island prison, in New York, and occasionally I'd read the letters -- and there was a letter about Tony Fruscella! A woman writing her convict boyfriend, reminiscing about how when Fru couldn't get a gig they (she and her boyfriend) would ride with him on the subways while he played his horn for them. And much later, in the late 1980s, nearly 20 years after Fruscella's lonely death, a jazz disc jockey of some obscure station near Albany sent me a copy of an anonymous letter he'd received, a letter from a recovering addict about sharing a pad with Fru and some other addicts in Manhattan, and Fru would sit on the fire escape playing, playing, playing, and it was the only comfort they knew. So, in these strange ways, Tony Fruscella seemed to be seeking me out, literally sending me letters (albeit written by others), to remind me that art isn't about culture, isn't about critics, isn't about fame; art is about an unending attempt to give what we can, where we can, to whom we can, and that there's always something of value to give, no matter how damaged we are and no matter how much hope we've lost. You never know. You can be playing your horn in a junkie daze on a fire escape, and, if you're really playing it (as Fru always did), that can give somebody what they need to go on another day.

Long after he died, a few more recordings were issued: a lovely 1948 studio session that had been thought lost; a live session with Charlie Parker recorded in someone's apartment; a few other live gigs in tiny joints in Manhattan. A total of about four hours' worth of music. Not a lot to show for one lost life. And yet it reaches out. I play those discs now and again -- I'm playing them as I write -- to remind myself that beauty-of-soul is not easily obliterated, even in this massive blaring triviality that we've come to call "culture." And I remember being a lost kid, a kid who knew too much and too little, playing not very well, but with great satisfaction, in a cellar -- accompanying Fru as his solos came out of that small mono record player, trying to find in my horn, in myself, that sound of tender unquenchable longing that Tony Fruscella gave us before he went down. end story Written by Michael Ventura; published in The Austin Chronicle in 2000.


for The Daily Growler


Language said...

Great post. Now I want to hear the guy.

Marybeth said...

Holy shit man!! I was googling "Don Joseph", to find out if he was still alive and I get YOU!!!!!! I was a trumpet student of Don Joseph's, on Staten Island, when I was 15 and he was 51 (the age I am now). He was a great player and a riot as a human being. Unfortunately he had the worst cases of the hots for me and as soon as I turned 18, I couldn't be around the man with out him trying to jump in my bones. Good God. But before I was legal, he kept that in check and we had a great time. We played lots of duets together and he was the guy who encouraged me to just jam along with the radio. If I hadn't met Don and studied with him I never would have majored in trumpet performance at Brooklyn College (And met Matty, AND YOU! etc.) What a hoot that I get you as a source of Don Joseph info, yeah, and Tony Fruscella. The world is too goddamned little.

Shannon Custer said...

My grandfather was the best of friends with Tony. They met when they both played in the army band. They palled around and played together for years. Tony stayed with my grandpa for a few months one time when he was homeless. Growing up, I heard stories about about the two of them all the time.